The name of your duo, Recycle Group, refers to the environment. It is very pioneering, did you intend from the start to address environmental issues?

Our name is that of our first exhibition, Recycle , in 2008 in Moscow. This idea of ​​recycling is constitutive of our approach. For us, it goes further than a simple reference to the environment. We already had a practice of using recovered materials, but this goes much further than the relationship to matter and waste. It concerns time, art, and in particular the idea of ​​what is recycled in art. We wanted to break the taboo of believing that each creation is new. For example, we recycle a lot of Greek and Roman mythological figures in our creations and therefore the history of art.

Your work deals with global issues: the power and place of digital, global warming, human rights. Does the size and nature of these questions suggest a way to address them artistically?

These themes are at the heart of our work, but they are never explicitly revealed or demonstratively in our works. We ensure that there is always a first reading that is based on aesthetic emotion. We are conceptual artists but we were also trained in Russia in classical painting, and in this sense we do not see ourselves in the sometimes very minimalist approach of conceptual art. We also don’t want to deliver regurgitated messages, but, instead, we want the visitor to do their part too. Some immediately grasp the message of our work, others seek it out by reading texts, or via educational tools. We also address this double level of reading through technology such as augmented reality. When we approach, for example, the issue of human rights and censorship on the Internet, behind a marble sculpture another reality appears in AR. This game of distance also allows us to approach sensitive subjects in institutional contexts, such as with “Blocked Content” at the Russian pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2017. Moreover, this could seem simplistic, but a large installation helps us to better translate the size of an issue. Finally, we are simply fans of large scale!

Until March 2022, you are presenting “New Nature”, a major exhibition at the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, which will follow on from the one at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in Saint Petersburg in 2021. Here you place the digital, with its ethical and environmental issues, at the forefront.

Yes, as we all know, digital contributes strongly to global warming and pollution. But all this remains invisible, behind our screens. In this exhibition, we address precisely the hidden issues of digital. With “Forest of Expired Links” we represented the mass of expired links in a gigantic interactive installation. We also created an “Artificial Mud” as a metaphor for the catastrophic environmental footprint of digital, that includes the waste that we leave ourselves on the Internet, most often data, photos or videos that each of us stores unnecessarily. In this exhibition, which required two years of preparation and research, we also wanted to employ the very subject of our research, so we developed an artificial intelligence program in addition to the augmented reality that we already use. Our “Probability” installation offers the visitor to choose a prediction of their future, calculated according to their activity on social networks. We want to make the viewer understand that the future of technology depends on our choices. In which direction do we want it to go?

What have you learned from your own use of artificial intelligence?

We are quite terrified by the progress made in two years by the artificial intelligence developed for our exhibition. Its predictive qualities have increased tenfold. We are particularly frightened by the possible abuses of artificial intelligence, and believe that people like Elon Musk are dangerous. However, we also believe that a technology controlled by humans, with a sense of ethics, can be useful. Technology is a means and it is up to humans to determine its purpose. When we use AI, we can clearly see its possible consequences. If it is used in the service of weapons, it will be a calamity. Our responsibility as artists is not to judge or condemn technology, but to recall our responsibility with regards to it, Thereby directing us towards positive applications and to make people understand the risks associated with its use by authoritarian or mafia structures. We are much more positive about NFTs, especially as their ecological impact is finally decreasing. For us, an NFT work has less environmental impact than a work produced with materials that come from the other side of the world. We believe that NFTs also represent a counter-weight. If artists can get rich with NFTs, it gives more power to art and less to GAFA and the oil giants.

How do you integrate the environment into your practice?

At the start, we were like many artists at their beginning, we wanted to produce a lot, and even if we used recycled materials, essentially this search for intensive production had nothing ecological about it. Over time, we try to allocate less time to production. For us, a responsible use of time is to invest 80% of the time in design and 20% in production, and during this design time, we must ask ourselves the question of the means and of the materials. We are not exemplary, because we do not always use recycled materials, but we try to think about our choices according to their impact and to identify what we can take from our previous works. We are not afraid to be recycled ourselves!

You use mythological figures to confront humans with current challenges, when you merge them with a trash can, is it also to question what we are becoming as a species?

Exactly. We play with archaeology. By fusing the figure of an ancient god and a trash can, we imagine somebody looking at our present time from the future, and we humorously create the art historical reference that would evoke our time. What does our present say? On an anthropological level, we have become beings intrinsically linked to waste, pollution and climate change, but also to virtuality. Yesterday’s symbols were the sword or the column, today it is the trash can or the mobile.

You now live in France. Why did you leave Russia?

First of all for a sentimental reason! But also to be free, to be able to express ourselves on the subjects of human rights, the environment, the digital world, all subjects which today are suppressed in many countries. And then we are very attached to our gallery owner, Suzanne Tarasieve, another love story too!

Conversation with Alice Audouin

Translated by Stefano Vendramin

January 2022

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Credits: Portrait, Courtesy of the artist / Way, Courtesy of the artist + The Null NFT / Forest of expired links, Courtesy of the artist / Recycle Group, Sarcophagus, 2010, courtesy of Galerie Rabouan Moussion